Historic and spectacularly beautiful beach at the edge of the Royal National Park
Located 54 km south of Sydney via the Princes Highway, Stanwell Park and Stanwell Tops are the first settlements south of the Royal National Park and, with the advent of the electrification of the Illawarra line, the northernmost suburbs of Greater Wollongong, although few of the locals would be happy to consider themselves part of Wollongong.
It is easy to underestimate the beauty of Stanwell Park, situated, as it is, on what is arguably the most beautiful stretch of coastline between Melbourne and Cape York.
Originally inhabited by the Wodi Wodi Aborigines the first Europeans to pass through the area, in 1797, were the survivors of the wreck of the Sydney Cove. Shortly afterwards George Bass travelled down the coast looking for other survivors. He discovered coal near Stanwell Park at Coalcliff.
Governor Lachlan Macquarie was an early visitor who remarked upon the beauty of the spectacle in 1822:
'On our arrival at the summit of the mountain, we were gratified with a very magnificent bird's eye view of the ocean, the 5 Islands, and of the greater part of the low country of Illawarra...After feasting our eyes with this grand prospect, we commenced descending the mountain...The whole face...is clothed with the largest and finest forest trees I have ever seen in the colony.'
There are a number of ways of approaching this magnificent section of the coast. The journey through the Royal National Park along Lady Wakehurst Drive brings the visitor suddenly and dramatically out at Stanwell Tops with the coastline spreading southwards. Another approach is to follow the old Princes Highway then turn left into Lawrence Hargrave Drive.
The village grew when the railway connecting Sydney with the Illawarra was opened in the late 1880s. The track has never been entirely successful. The sections around the cliffs have caused serious subsidence, resulting in a fatal accident in the late 1980s.
Indicative of the problems is the remarkable curved viaduct over Stanwell Creek Gorge. It was built in the 1910s when subsidence along the old route dictated the construction of a new track higher up the mountain. Standing 65 m above a creek bed surrounded by profuse rainforest vegetation and containing an estimated five million bricks it is reputedly the largest railway viaduct in Australia. It is fascinating to reflect that the railway (now electrified), which takes commuters to Sydney every day, was initially constructed to haul coal from these small mining towns to the port at Wollongong.
Stanwell Park is famous for its connections with the early history of human flight. This beach resort was once the home of Lawrence Hargrave, the inventor of the box kite and one of the founding fathers of modern aviation. He moved to Hillcrest House in 1893, now the caretaker's house to what is surely one of the earliest postwar retirement villages in Australia. It is located on the road up to the Stanwell Park Railway Station.
Hargrave inherited the house from his brother Ralph. The family had extensive holdings in the Illawarra and Hargrave, who had been an explorer and worked as an astronomical observer at the Sydney Observatory, was able to retire and spend all his time developing his theories about flight. He carried out many of his experiments, particularly those with box kites (they are now on display in the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney) on Bald Hill above Hillcrest House.
The Wollongong Information Centre can be contacted by calling (02) 4228 0300.
Symbio Wildlife Gardens
On Lawrence Hargrave Drive, near the intersection with the Old Princes Highway, are the Symbio Wildlife Gardens, which have recently been revamped. A highlight are the six freshwater crocodiles on display in a large $300,000 enclosure designed to enable the closest possible safe views. Their stated aim is to offer "a state-of-the-art, cage-free wildlife experience that both entertains and educates visitors and helps conserve wildlife." There are over 1000 native, exotic and farmyard animals in all, including spider monkeys, brahman cattle, cassowaries, camels, ostriches, dingoes, reptiles, including sizable boa constrictors, eagles, llamas, wombats, a 'twilight' house full of nocturnal animals, and a barking owl known as 'Arnie,' which has appeared in a Delta Goodrem music video and TV documentaries and will soon appear in the Hollywood film Mask 2. Visitors can cuddle koalas, hand-feed and pat kangaroos and emus, chat with the cockatoos and bottle-freed goats. Lions, tigers, alligators and Tasmanian devils are soon to be added to the menagerie. There is also a cafe, a souvenir shop, free swimming pools and gas barbecues.
The Gardens are open from 9.30 a.m. to 5.00 p.m. daily with signs indicating the way from the Princes Highway. Entry, as of 2011, was $22 for adults, $12 for children and $20 for seniors and concessions, tel: (02) 4294 1244 or check out: http://www.symbiozoo.com.au/
Just east of Symbio, on Lawrence Hargrave Drive, is the turnoff to the Hindu temple which is well worth a visit. However, it is a genuine place of worship and visitors are expected to be quiet and respectful.
Monument to Lawrence Hargrave
'The blue plain of the sea fringed by white lace as surf runs up broad beaches or beats relentlessly on cliff faces and mountains plunging sheer into the sea, so the spectacle is revealed from Bald Hill, the most imposing approach of all.'
On top of Bald Hill there is a monument to Lawrence Hargrave with the inscription:
'Lawrence Hargrave - 1850-1915 whose pioneering research in aeronautics with engines, monoplanes and box-kites, much of which was carried out at Stanwell Park, played a vital part in the development of the aeroplane'.
Sharing with Hargrave an understanding of the impressive aeronautical potential of the area, the hang-gliding fraternity still use the hill as a launching point for their spectacular flights out over the Pacific and back onto the beach far below. Tandem flights and lessons are available from Sydney Hang Gliding Centre at Otford, tel: (02) 4294 9994.
Across the road from the Hargrave Memorial is Intabane, a strange mansion with a witch¹s hat roof which was used as an army lookout during World War II. It was originally built in 1917 for £3000 and became a guest house between the wars.
There is a pleasant bushwalk to Kelly's Falls. Turn left at Bald Hill and proceed towards Helensburgh. You will see a large stone monument to your left (if coming from the north) between the two forks of Stonehaven St and opposite is a smallish wooden sign denoting the start of the walking trail. After 1 km you come to a clearing, take the track which leads north across the clearing and Kelly's Falls will appear after 50 metres. The trail continues on to a viewing platform. Another track runs from Stanwell Park train station up to the Peace Garden, a pleasant spot, where there are historic Aboriginal carvings on the trees. Bushwalking maps and details are available from the Tourist Information Centre in Wollongong.
The Coastal Villages
From Stanwell Park Lawrence Hargrave Drive snakes its way south along the coastline, passing through the well-named Coalcliff where a narrow winding section of road is sandwiched between sheer cliffs and a precipitous drop into the ocean. It is with a feeling of some relief that land soon opens up on both sides of the road at Clifton - the first of several small, picturesque villages with beautiful sandy beaches and rock pools at the eastern edge of rocky cliff faces. Surfers, swimmers, anglers, sunbathers and beachwalkers are all attracted to this stretch of coast.
Although these 'villages' - Coalcliff, Clifton, Scarborough, Wombarra, Coledale, Austinmer, Thirroul and Bulli - now form a continuous residential strip, they were originally separate coalmining settlements which developed in the mid-19th century and they retain a sense of integrity and beauty that renders the term 'suburban' inappropriate. Houses huddle together along the coastline but they also continue up the escarpment where the environment becomes quite verdant and beautiful without ever seeming yuppified (a testimony to the area's unpretentious working-class roots).
Because of its proximity to industrialised Wollongong this area was largely ignored until the arrival of the electric train service in 1987. In the past decade it has become an increasingly desirable, and expensive, commuter region for Sydneysiders.
Clifton and Scarborough retain modest and popular pubs which hang over the cliffs. Stanwell Park and Coalcliff are noted surfing beaches.
Stanwell Park Ocean Blue B&B
9a Murrawal Rd
Stanwell Park NSW 2508
Telephone: (02) 4294 2477, mob 0412 755 797
Sur La Mer
8 Moore St Austinmer
Stanwell Park NSW 2508
Telephone: (02) 4267 2769
Tea By The Sea
52 Lawrence Hargrave Dve
Stanwell Park NSW 2508
Telephone: (02) 4294 3998
The Palms Cafe
111 Lawrence Hargrave Dve
Stanwell Park NSW 2508
Telephone: (02) 4294 3371